Monday, November 12, 2018

An Example Agile Coaching Conversation

Initiating a Coaching Interaction

Imagine that a manager comes to you and asks:

Manager: “could you teach my team how to use planning poker?”

It may be that there is a perfectly good reason for the team to learn and use planning poker. On the other hand, by following the coaching process, you may learn that the real issue is that the manager thinks the estimates that the team is coming up with are too large. In that case, teaching the team planning poker (when they may already know it) is likely to aggravate the team and leave the original issue unresolved.

Start with Relationship Management

One factor that contributes to the quality of interaction is the rapport you build with those you are coaching. In any interaction, make a conscious effort to contribute to that relationship. It can be as simple as doing a quick check-in and/or engaging in small-talk. When somebody approaches you with a coaching request, it can be tempting to dive right in. Not only does pausing to build rapport contribute to the relationship, it also gives both of you a chance to pause, become present, and focus on the coaching conversation. You may even discover some useful context for the problem at hand. Let’s see how the conversation that started with a request to teach a team planning poker might play out:

Coach: “I’ll have to check my schedule. How have things been going?”

Manager: “Things are pretty good in general, but this team has really been a problem. They are consistently behind and I’m starting to lose sleep over it. Anyway, I need to go, can you take it from here?”

Issue Identification

In the example, the coachee is trying to end the conversation before you have had a chance to do any coaching at all. Your goal is to get a coaching conversation started. A good tool here is to use a coaching question.

Coach: “I’d be happy to teach them planning poker, but I feel like I’m missing some context. Can we back up a moment? What precipitated this?

The question “what precipitated this” has started a coaching conversation. While the coachee has presented you with what may actually be the problem and tried to delegate to you what may be the solution, it is better to go through a process of identifying the issue, even if you end up in the same place you started.

From the conversation so far, you have surfaced that the team is “consistently behind,” that the manager is “starting to lose sleep over it” and that he would like you to teach the team planning poker. Planning poker may or may not be connected to his statement that the team is consistently behind, but losing sleep indicates that it is very important to the manager that something changes to make things better.

Manager: “well, I don’t think they are doing planning poker right because their estimates always seem to come out too high and then they don’t get the work done in time.”
From this answer, it seems that the manager may not understand the purpose of planning poker or may not understand the use of story points (or both). Let’s try another coaching question.

Coach: “I hear you saying that this team doesn’t get their work done in time. How would you summarize the high level problem here?”

Manager: “actually, there’s a lot on my mind. The real problem here is that as a company we seem to have lost the ability to make our customers happy. I guess I was just thinking that the deadline issue was low-hanging fruit.”

Aha! Now we are getting somewhere.

Goal Setting

Once the coachee has identified the issue that they would like to work on, the next step is to turn the issue into a goal. In some cases, the difference may only be semantics, but reframing an issue into a goal can shift the perspective from dealing with an energy sapping problem to investing in achieving an exciting goal.

Coach: “How could you reframe the issue ‘we’ve lost the ability to make our customers happy’ into a goal?”

Manager: [after thinking for a moment] “I think the Product Manager is also frustrated, but I don’t think they realize how good this team has been at partnering with product to better understand customer needs and come up with novel features that delight customers. They are just focused on getting what they want by a certain date. I think a good goal would be to help the Product Manager better understand what this team can do.”

We’ve come a long way from the manager’s initial request. And if we had stepped in with suggestions right away or made assumptions about what the problem was, we might not have ever gotten to this point. Of course, not all coaching conversations will end up with the coachee solving their own problem, but if we don’t try, we’ll never know. And regardless of where we end up, by following a process that includes coaching questions and active observation, we will surface lots of useful information that will come in handy if we need to move to another mode such as teaching or mentoring.

Uncovering Options

At this point, we could step away knowing that we’ve already provided a lot of value to the manager, but we’re not done yet. The next step is to uncover options for achieving the goal.

Coach: “what options do you see for achieving your goal?”

Manager: “I could go and talk to the product manager directly, but I don’t think he sees me as business minded. I could mention my idea to the product owner, I think they worked together at another company. I could also suggest that he talk to a customer that was on the verge of abandoning us until this team partnered with them to come up with some really awesome new features that then also led to a whole new market. Now that I’ve laid it out this way, I think the best bet is to talk to the product owner about setting up a meeting between that customer and the product manager. Thanks! This was really helpful."

This is actually just a fragment of a full Agile Coaching conversation. I've kept it short to fit into the format of a blog post.

Next: Coaching Questions


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